Although Henrietta Lacks has now become a household name thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s seminal work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, there have been many other victims of the systemic racism in medical research whose voices have not been heard. Chip Jones’ The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South gives voice to such a person. Just two years after the Civil Rights after of 1964, an African American by the name of Bruce Tucker was admitted to Medical College of Virginia after sustaining a serious head injury at his workplace. Less than 24 hours later, Bruce’s heart was beating inside the chest of a Caucasian businessman. The Tucker family was never properly informed of: (a) Bruce’s admittance to the hospital and (b) the harvesting of his organs. It was only when the mortician prepared Bruce’s body for burial did the family realize he was missing his heart and kidneys. Thus launched an independent investigation and a shocking legal battle to determine whether hospitals were deliberately allowing patients of color to die in order to harvest their organs. In addition to focusing on the life and death of Bruce Tucker, the book dives into the early history of racial inequality in the South, medical malpractice in the pursuit of scientific research, and the resulting legal precedents. Chip Jones’ writing covers a myriad of topics, some of which were extremely relevant or interesting and others less so. Regardless, Jones brings to the forefront a disturbing topic that deserves more awareness. I’d like to thank Gallery and Jeter Publishing for sending me an advance reading copy of this book. The story of Bruce Tucker has never felt more relevant and timely considering the current state of affairs.
In light of recent events, I’d like to point out that even now “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable” (source: National Academy of Medicine). Covid-19, for example, disproportionately affects black communities; African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans. However, it is not enough to just acknowledge the inequalities experienced by minorities. It is also important to enact change, which more often than not happens with policies and legislatures at the government-level. If you are an American citizen and have not yet registered to vote, I strongly urge you to do so now. It’s quick and convenient and will ensure that your voice is heard: Register to Vote Online.
Full disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of The Organ Thieves by Chip Jones, and my review is based on an uncorrected proof. This book will be available in bookstores on August 18, 2020.